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Fantasy and Me: Back to the Beginnings

“Weland gave the Sword, The Sword gave the Treasure, and the Treasure gave the Law. It’s as natural as an oak growing.”

Puck of Pook’s Hill, by Rudyard Kipling.

H. R. Millar’s frontispiece to the original edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. Public Domain

I’m going to try to give some coherence and structure to these posts on my favourite fantasy books, so let’s go back to my childhood to start it all. Here, in Puck of Pook’s Hill, is the very beginnings of my on-going love for fantasy.

For those of you not familiar, Puck of Pook’s Hill is a 1906 children’s book by Rudyard Kipling. Yes, I know Kipling is politically incorrect. I didn’t know that when I was eight, and my memory of a child’s delight with this book remains.  

Puck, an elf (perhaps), (the same Puck as in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I’ll also be writing about, at some point) and “the oldest Old thing in England”, appears to two children, Dan and Una, from Midsummer’s Eve to early November. Either he, or characters from history he brings with him, tell the children a series of stories, which illustrate a version of a history of England from before the Conquest to the signing of the Magna Carta.

The stories begin with Puck appearing to the children and explaining who and what he is (which is not a fairy):

‘Can you wonder that the People of the Hills don’t care to be confused with that painty-winged, wand-waving, sugar-and-shake-your-head set of impostors? Butterfly wings, indeed! I’ve seen Sir Huon and a troop of his people setting off from Tintagel Castle for Hy-Brasil in the teeth of a sou’-westerly gale, with the spray flying all over the Castle, and the Horses of the Hills wild with fright. Out they’d go in a lull, screaming like gulls, and back they’d be driven five good miles inland before they could come head to wind again. Butterfly-wings! It was Magic—Magic as black as Merlin could make it, and the whole sea was green fire and white foam with singing mermaids in it. And the Horses of the Hills picked their way from one wave to another by the lightning flashes! That was how it was in the old days!’

So many of the elements of the Eurocentric fantasy I grew up were introduced to me first in this book of interrelated short stories and poems: Weyland Smith, the Wild Hunt, the ‘Little People’, and the mythologized Roman Empire (which became the idea behind my own books.)  The power of trees: Oak, Ash, and Thorn; the magic of hollow hills and circles, and, too, the interconnectedness, the interweaving, of magic and history.

Kipling’s stories would influence a generation (or more) of writers; I believe they can be seen strongly in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series (more on those another time), but also on another writer, if only in one small way. Because when Puck is described, one thing that is mentioned – along with his small stature – is his ‘bare, hairy feet.’ Just like Bilbo’s.

Featured Image: H. R. Millar’s 2nd illustration to the original edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, from the chapter Weyland’s Sword, entitled, “Then he made a sword”.

My Favourite Fantasy Books: Hollo, by Devon Michael

I should be editing. Or researching. But I’m not (this is called procrastination). I was thinking about the entire genre called fantasy, for reasons – well, maybe I’ll say at the end. Thinking of all the books I’ve loved over the years, some well known, some not. So over a series of blog posts, I’m going to talk about some of those books and authors, indie and traditionally published. In no order, except that in which they appear in my head.

Hollo, by indie author Devon Michael, was the first one to come to mind. I read it several years ago, in 2016, but it’s stuck in my head, both for the premise and the quality of the writing.

“There was a pool of darkness in the midst of the light, where the wind had come in accompanied by a shadow, a shadow with shoulders and a head that stretched into the lighted space on the floor at the bottom of the stairs.”

Hollo The Gatecaster's Apprentice full

Here’s what I said in my review:

Reminiscent of Neil Gaiman, of the darkest episodes of Doctor Who, of some of the madness of Tim Burton, Devon Michael’s Hollo: The Gatecaster’s Apprentice is an artfully told, dark, and frightening coming-of-age tale with a twist. Hollo, the title character and protagonist, is a puppet made of wood, but one that can think and feel and move autonomously, created by her ‘father’ Fredric. (This might remind you of Pinocchio, but it shouldn’t.)

When Hollo reaches her twelfth birthday, Fredric takes her out into the world, a place far more complex and menacing than her sheltered world of Fredric’s house and the metal-casters workshop next door. Here she first hears the name Bander-Clou, and the words ‘Zygotic Pneuma’. Just what is she? And who is her father, really?

Clock-work soldiers of metal and wood pursue her. Hollo befriends a human girl; statues come to life; elemental forces protect her. Hollo’s world is under siege, and she is caught in a larger story, one older than she but one to which she belongs, and one in which she has an integral part to play. Michaels writes fluidly and effectively, his words invoking horror, happiness, fear and joy, the pacing moving the plot along quickly, but not so quickly the world-building is overlooked. This is a well-realized and developed world, one that the author leads the reader into by hints and clues: the reader learns the world along with Hollo.

Characters are well-developed, especially Hollo, whose innocence at the beginning is lightly but effectively shown, but also the supporting cast, from the malapropistic statue ‘The Countess’ to the marvellously conceived Lightening Man. And they all have a role to play; none of these characters, some of whom would not be out of place in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, are superfluous to the story.’

There was both an intimacy and a universality to this tale: no huge world-changing events, except for Hollo herself. Maybe that’s why I remember it, because it was so personal, and yet more.

I understand there’s a second edition of Hollo available soon. I’d recommend it.

P.S: As to why I was thinking about fantasy? I had my participation in two local events turned down, one because my books are fantasy, and one because they’re not. (Same books.) So it got me thinking about all the books I’ve read over the years that are classified as fantasy, and what that term does and doesn’t mean to various people. The upshot is I get to revisit my favourites, so that’s a bonus.

IImage by Comfreak from Pixabay 

Mood Music

Songs and music have always been part of my stories, but it wasn’t until the musician Sorley moved from minor character to supporting in Empire’s Exile that I started to create playlists for part or all of my books. In Exile, it was only one song: there exists, in my fictional world, a song about two brothers separated forever by war. Sorley sings this one night, ‘for all we have loved, and all we have lost.’ Before and during writing this scene, I listened to Danny Boy, over and over again, trying to capture the sense of loss and love embodied in both its tune and its words.

Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side….

Then Sorley moved from supporting character to main character, and the story he had to tell was one of love and betrayal, both in the immediate and looking back on it, and I needed songs to tell me of his pain and longing. The playlist started with Runrig’s This Beautiful Pain:

All that’s constant
And wise I still see in your eyes.
It was always this way from
The start. Right here where I
Stand on the last of the land.
But you’re still breaking the
Heart….

and Stan Rogers’ Turnaround:

…yours was the open road,
The bitter song, the heavy load
That I couldn’t share
Though the offer was there
Every time you turned around. 

Eventually it included Blue Rodeo, Gordon Lightfoot, more Runrig, Cat Stevens and CSNY. And one more, by the end: the song Sorley writes himself (or, rather, I did, of course – capturing the mood of Archie Fisher’s Dark Eyed Molly), his beautiful Paths Untrodden.

Then I started writing Empire’s Heir, which is the first of my books to have two narrators: the aging Cillian and his adult daughter Gwenna. There were two separate moods I needed to capture, along with a sense of a world changing, the torch being passed. I had Gwenna’s quickly: another Runrig song, Always the Winner

When you close your eyes there’s
A frightened pride that lives
For you. That your mother’s life
And your father’s eyes can’t
Hide. You had no choice, didn’t
Ask the dice to fall for you.
Still your courage comes like
Thunder through the skies. 

Cillian’s song took much longer – until a comment on Twitter discussing Leonard Cohen’s best songs took me to Alexandra Leaving – and it was perfect.

Suddenly the night has grown colder
The god of love preparing to depart
Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder
They slip between the sentries of the heart…

Now, as I contemplate the two planned books – Empress & Soldier, the stories of Druisius and Eudekia before Lena and Cillian and Sorley enter their lives, and the last book of the series, Empire’s Passing, which will be narrated by Colm and Lena – I’ll have to go looking for appropriate songs again. They’ll be out there, somewhere.

Danny Boy lyrics:  Frederic Weatherly, 1913; copyright expired.

This Beautiful Pain: Songwriters: Calum Macdonald, Rory Macdonald lyrics © BMG Rights Management

Turnaround: © Stan Rogers, Fogarty’s Cove & Cole Harbour Music

Always The Winner Songwriters: Calum Macdonald, Rory Macdonald lyrics © BMG Rights Management

Alexandra Leaving: © Leonard Cohen, Sharon Robinson and Sony/ATV Music Publishing Canada Company. 

Goodbye to the Sun, by Jonathan Nevair: A Review

An aging, alcoholic diplomat with memories he cannot face, filled with cynicism and guilt in equal measures, is taken hostage by freedom fighters seeking to use him as a pawn in negotiations. But the worlds of the known and inhabited galaxy have been the sites of many battles for power and dominance, and no one can be trusted. Nor, perhaps, can trust be given to memory, love, or family.

Keen is the diplomat, seeking in his chosen second career to forget the people he loved and could not – or did not – save, and the approval of his father, who makes no secret of his disdain for his son. Razor is the freedom fighter, raised in the harsh deserts that are all that left of her once-verdant planet, before the winds were captured for energy, and the ecosystems destroyed by the ruling Targitians. Together they are played by the ruling powers, buffeted by factions as politically strong, and as deadly, as the Wind Tides of Kol 2, Razor’s home planet.

Goodbye to the Sun is packed with action and political intrigue, but it is also a deeply philosophical novel. Echoing themes (and perhaps structure) from Antigone but addressing issues of privilege, gender identity and climate change within the greater questions of the tension between love of family and love of an ideal, it contains some of the most elegant and provocative writing I’ve come across in some time. It made me think, but at the same time was a fast-paced, intelligent space opera with characters I card about: a hard balance to create and maintain, but debut author Jonathan Nevair has done it.

Goodbye to the Sun is the first of a planned trilogy. I look forward to the next book immensely.  

IMG_2352.jpg

Visit Jonathan Nevair’s website for more information.

From Concept to Finished Novel(s): Part I: The Very Beginning.

Never before have I had two books in my head at once, competing to be written. One is the last book that directly belongs to my series, working title Empire’s Passing.  The other – Empress & Soldier – is a side novel, the story of the Empress Eudekia and of the soldier Druisius, growing up at the same time but in very different environments in Casil, the Rome-like city of my books. It will intersect at its ending with Empire’s Exile, providing a different entry point to my series, but also further deepening and exploring the increasingly complex character of Druisius.

For the sake of the series (and my readers) I should write Empire’s Passing first. But here’s the dilemma: prior to that, I need to write at least a draft of Druisius’s half of Empress & Soldier. I can’t learn things about Druise that might be important in Passing after it’s out. And character sheets don’t work for me. Within an overarching structure, I’m a discovery writer, and that’s not going to change.  

I’m going to document this process of two overlapping books, because it’s new. A challenge, and my brain likes challenges, and I want to see how I do it. What I plan, what appears serendipitously, what the struggles are.

Here’s where I am today, June 20, 2021.

Empress & Soldier (hereafter E&S):

It will have, I believe, a three act structure, each act a period of 4 – 5 years. Druisius is 16 at the start; Eudekia 12. He is the son of a trader; she is the treasured daughter of the equivalent of a Roman senator. Other than brief, unknowing glimpses, their lives will not intersect until he becomes a palace guard at the same time she marries the young Emperor, at the end of the 2nd act.

I have a good but incomplete idea of what I need to learn about Druisius, both in his personal life and his military and guard positions. I have less idea about Eudekia, except to more fully understand how she became such a skilled diplomat and leader, and her marriage to the Emperor. However, this will reveal itself.

On my study wall there is now a timeline chart. On my bookshelf is a pile of books for research into private lives of both plebeians and the senatorial class in Rome; the Roman army; daily life in ancient Rome, and travel. Those I need to read for Druisius as well as Eudekia. I have other books specific to Eudekia, but they can wait.

Empire’s Passing (hereafter Passing):

Two narrators:  Cillian and Lena’s son Colm, and Lena. Colm is somewhere to the east of Casil, in a war zone, serving as a battlefield physician. Lena and the rest of her family are at Wall’s End, in Ésparias. This is about ten years after the end of Empire’s Heir. (I’ll try really hard in this diary not to give too much away.) The war in the east is affecting the governance and stability of Ésparias…and that’s just about all I know at this point. (Except its end: I’ve known that for at least a year, but I won’t ever reveal that.)

On my bookshelf are the books related to this, with more on order: books on Roman medicine, on Roman military conquests; on Viking travels to Kiev and Byzantium; on slavery in ancient Rome; on daily life on Hadrian’s Wall.  I have a whiteboard and a notebook where I jot down ideas.

This really is the very beginning of the creative process – and in a day or three I’ll have to stop to do the final revisions, and then the proofing, on Empire’s Heir. This will be a sporadic diary, updated when I have something to say, or I remember. It’s not meant to be a guidebook to writing a novel, or advice – simply a record. Follow along if you like!

Readjusting

Last night, after a day or so of feeling under the weather from my second vaccine, I realized that in three weeks, when my antibody count should be firmly up, that life will change.

For eighteen months, pretty much all I’ve done is write and exercise (and, yes, shower and eat and sleep, etc.) It started in our winter retreat to England in 2020 – that’s pretty much our lives there: long walks, the occasional movie, and writing time. Then the pandemic arrived, we came home, and since March 2020, with no lunches out, weekly writers’ meet-ups, movies, game nights with friends, visits to family….I write. And read and research. But mostly, I write.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay 

Blogs, guest blogs, newsletters, non-fiction pieces, verse.  And the current novel, of course. I’ve been hugely productive. But I can’t keep this pace up in a closer-to-normal world, and I have two more books to write in the current series, with ideas beyond that. Something is going to have to give.

At this moment, I’m not sure what. I value my friends and family, and I’ve missed them. Creativity needs the breaks movies and game nights give. Books already written need the exposure the guest blogs and interviews provide. It’s likely a matter of reducing, not eliminating. I write ‘smarter’ these days – more planning, more thought before hands-on-keyboard; not necessarily faster, but less tiring to my aging muscles, joints, and eyes, and my writing is cleaner, needing less rewriting and revision.

But the first step will be reacquainting myself with the bookstore I haven’t been in since December of 2019. After that, we’ll see.

Featured Image: by TaniaRose from Pixabay 

Cillian

The Characters of Empire’s Legacy, Part 1.

We first meet Cillian early in Empire’s Hostage, and he’ll be present, at least in memory, through to the end of the series. Because I wasn’t, at that point in my development as a writer, a plotter in any form, I had no idea how important he was. But he is central to the next three books, both to the personal and political arcs of all my characters.

I don’t ‘invent’ my characters, in that I don’t say ‘I want a character who is funny and bad-ass and scared of commitment’ to fit into a place in my books; they just appear, more or less fully formed, in my mind, and I learn about them as I write. What intrigued me about Cillian were the dichotomies.  

The man we first meet is thirty-three, unfriendly, distant – and yet clearly devoted to both Perras and Dagney, the two teachers at the school in Linrathe where we first encounter him. He wants next to nothing to do with Lena, my protagonist, because she’s from the southern Empire. He nurtures a near-hatred for that land, because his father was one of its soldiers, a man who left his young mother unmarried and shamed, making Cillian a bastard, another shame in Linrathe.

Over the course of the next four books – Empire’s Exile, the novella Oraiáphon, Empire’s Reckoning, and the upcoming Empire’s Heir – we learn a lot more about Cillian. He is a man who loves the country of his birth passionately – and yet he abandons it. He had sworn an oath of loyalty to its land and people in his role as toscaire – something between an envoy and a spy – but broke that oath. He is skilled in (some) of the arts of the bedroom – and yet says he has never been in love.

From these – and other – dichotomies a portrait of a deeply moral and deeply complex man slowly emerged. Torn always between love for individuals and love for the concept of land and people; working secretly and dangerously to create a future at the risk of a charge of treason, and yet a follower of stoic philosophy: “Accept what fate brings you.”  A scholar who nonetheless nearly dies of war wounds, Cillian profoundly loves Lena – he calls her his greatest love, and his greatest blessing, but he is willing to give her up to save both their lands.  And he also loves a man who is his close companion.

Cillian is aware of his own complexity. (In modern terms, and playing armchair psychologist, Cillian not only would be diagnosed with depression, but likely has an anxiety disorder, for which both his stoic philosophy and his meticulous, detailed planning are coping strategies.) Sometimes he wonders why he is loved, considering how difficult and complicated a man he is. (Sometimes those who love him wonder the same thing.) Watching him emerge as an individual was fascinating to me as a writer, but in the newest book, Empire’s Heir (September release) half the story is told in his voice – and that gave a whole new dimension to my understanding of him, because for the first time I knew what was going on in his mind, not just what he allowed himself to say.

All I will say is he can still surprise me.  

(My vision of Cillian when we first meet him is represented here by Ed Stoppard in Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire)

Series links:

US: https://amzn.to/3eR1zxL

UK: https://amzn.to/33LsF3c

Know What You Don’t Know

In Empire’s Hostage, my protagonist Lena is told of a historic battle, one that forced an uneasy peace and the setting of a border. But I truly have no talent for writing battles, even one where it’s only a story being told, all the rough and bloody action reduced to a tale.

Image by Gioele Fazzeri from Pixabay 

Many many long years ago, in another life entirely, I had to write my first grant application for major funding – several hundred thousand dollars – for the research lab I was responsible for. I’d never done this before, and it was going to fund my lab (and pay my salary) for several years. But, I knew someone who had done this successfully the previous year. So, nicely, I asked if I could see his application, which he gladly shared with me. I read it, analyzed it, and then used it as a template for the one I wrote. Not a copy, because we worked on different things and needed different equipment. But a framework. He read it, made some suggestions, which I incorporated. I got the grant.

Ever since then, when I need to write something I have no expertise in, I look for a template. A model. So when it came to writing this battle tale for Hostage, I went looking for an account of a battle fought across a river in an early medieval setting. That’s all I needed, and I found it, a beautifully written account of the Battle of Stamford Bridge.  I took its details, and placed them in my setting, and wrote the tale Lena is told:

“Word came that the Marai were up the Tabha,” Donnalch continued. “The summer had been wet, wetter than normal, and so the boats of the Marai could be rowed up the river much further than usual, nearly to this spot. They found naught but sheep; the shepherd lads or lasses had fled at the sight of the boats. But one of those lads at least was fleet of foot, and so word reached his torp quickly, and from there a man and horse rode out across the hills, to find Neilan’s army at the coast.”

If you know the Battle of Stamford Bridge well, it might be recognizable from what happens. But even if it is, I don’t find that a problem. It can only add to the historical feeling of my invented world.

Importantly, in my mind, I did all this with the permission of the original author of the piece I used as a model. It took a little while to track him down: first I had to contact the webmaster of the source site, who contacted his writer, who contacted me. But he was glad to share, and I ensured that both he and the website are credited in Empire’s Hostage. (I sent him a copy of the paperback, too.)

The lessons I learned writing that grant application back in the early 80s have stayed with me across three careers: know what you don’t know; find a model and use it; ask for help. I’ve used this in every book since, whether it’s in writing the last battle in Exile, the music for the song in Reckoning, or the descriptions of Casil in both Exile and the upcoming sixth book, Empire’s Heir.

But there’s one more thing. In Empire’s Heir, the character Cillian is thinking about the responsibilities of those who teach:

“I believe that when the records are written, to be remembered as the teacher of Colm of Ésparias will be a great honour, ” Gnaius said. A reminder to me, I knew, of the responsibility we shared, the unbroken line of learning we had to maintain. We honoured those who had taught us, while expecting one or two students in our lives who would both exceed and succeed us.

I became very good at writing grant applications. Very good. Which leads me to the final piece of advice, if advice this is:  give back. Pay it forward. Share your expertise with others, give them a hand. Provide the model and the assistance, and perhaps your student will exceed you. If so, wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Featured Image: Mudassar Iqbal from Pixabay 

A Different Perspective

This is a map of Scotland; the county shown in red is Sutherland. Suðrland, in Old Norse, Southland, even though it is some of the most northerly land in mainland Britain. But from the point of view of the Norse, who ruled parts of what is now northern Scotland from the 8th to the 15th centuries, it was south.

We are used to maps with north at the top, but if you’re a northern people, that’s not the most useful view.  A rotated, south-up map of western Europe gives you a sense.  Sutherland is the red star.

By Tyrannus Mundi at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I borrowed this concept in its entirety for Empire’s Hostage: Sorham, the name for the land north of Linrathe, means ‘south-home’ in one of my semi-invented languages. Like northern Scotland, this area bounces between Linrathe and Varsland, my Norse-analogue country: disputed territory, with many treaties and much intermarriage.

Lena, the protagonist, sent into Linrathe as a hostage to a treaty, encounters this concept through, literally, a map turned upside down. Lena will learn many things in Linrathe, many of which – most – will change her understanding of not just her country and its history, but of the subjective nature of what she has been brought up to believe is truth. A different perspective.

Featured image: by Santa3 from Pixabay

The Sterre

I scanned the map. I found the roads I had ridden, and Karst, and followed the road with my eyes back to the Wall. Then I let my eyes travel down toward the bottom of the map. I could not read the names, but I could see the line of another wall, and named villages, and then a gap of ocean where the islands lay, and then just the edge of another land. “There is another Wall!” I said. “And what lands are these, here?” I pointed to the bottom of the map.

“The land to the far north, at the bottom, is Varsland, and the islands belong to it.” Perras said. “The other Wall—it is not a stone wall, or not mostly, but an earthen dyke for the greatest part—is The Sterre.”

Empire’s Hostage

160 kilometers north of Hadrian’s Wall, another wall spans Scotland, from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde. Sixty-three kilometers long, twelve years in the building, the Antonine Wall was abandoned a mere eight years after its completion.

Hadrians_Wall_map.pngCreated by Norman Einstein, September 20, 2005

There’s little of it left. Other than its foundation, it wasn’t a stone wall, but built of soil and turf and probably topped by a wooden palisade. The Emperor Antoninus Pius ordered it built to subdue the Caledonians.

I borrowed the concept of the Antonine Wall, but in my world it is a dividing line not between the ‘civilized’ south and the wild north, but between the country of Linrathe and the disputed territory north of it, Sorham. Sorham has been controlled by both Linrathe and Varsland, a country of seafarers even further north, just as parts of Scotland were under Norse rule until well into the 13th century. In Empire’s Hostage, it belongs to Linrathe.

This map of my imagined world has a different orientation than what we’re used to: south is up. This is how the nation of Varsland sees the world.

Why ‘The Sterre’?  I wish I could remember. One thing I should have was keep a record of how I developed words in my constructed languages. But its purpose in my books is to have kept the people south of it – the people of Linrathe – from moving north during a time of plague, many generations before the events of Empire’s Hostage.  It’s still a border, though, and a defensive earthwork, so it can be repurposed as politics demand – and they will.

Featured image: Antonine Wall at Barr Hill near Twechar, by Excalibur, CC 3.0